What Garden Plants Tolerate the High Mountain Winds of Colorado?

What Garden Plants Tolerate the High Mountain Winds of Colorado?

“Our biggest challenge up here in the mountains is the wind. Unless we build a sturdy greenhouse, there’s no way around it as it comes through and over fences as well. (10-35 mph on about 75% of days) Any plant suggestions?” Question from Wolf of Westcliffe, Colorado

Answer: When growing conditions are a problem for average garden-center plants, don’t complicate things. Go native. There are lots of beautiful native plants that grow well in Westcliffe’s warm summers, freezing winters, drought, and windy weather.

Dryland Native Plants for Colorado

When seeking the best garden plants for a region, I always turn to state extension services and universities for information about best-fit plants. They’re always the best resources for regional landscape plant recommendations. And, low and behold, when searching for your local flora, I found the document that you need. Colorado State and the Colorado Native Plant Society put together an outstanding piece about high-altitude, native garden plants for low-water regions in Colorado. (Click here to view it.) It lists some all-round garden favorites, like the Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata), beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata), and even Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), but it also lists many other native flowers and shrubs just found in your area. Its plant suggestions and bed ideas are outstanding. They are also wind-tolerant.

Your region is blessed with some of the most beautiful native plants in the US. I hope that this information is helpful.

Happy gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Pool Planting Tips from Hollywood’s Heyday

A Palm Springs mid-century modern was restored for climate change using artificial turf and some agaves. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

In Hollywood’s heyday, stars drove from Los Angeles to the desert resort of Palm Springs to party and tan in the quiet comfort of desert living.  The swimming pool came of age here as the focus of every landscape where its year-around usability became integral to backyards.  Whether you had a pool or in-ground spa, those in the business of pool maintenance discovered what not to plant, so the poolside amenity remained a blessing, not a curse.

Time and experience helped guide poolside landscaping standards in Palm Springs, and these standards remain in practice today. Here are some of the most important pool planting tips gleaned to keep you safe and your pool clean and happy.

Problematic Poolside Plantings and Wind

Small palms become big threats to the swimming pool shell and plumbing as well as water quality. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Beware of anything you plant upwind from your pool.  Every time it blows, the litter goes straight into the water.  If the leaves are large and resist rapid decomposition, such as those of magnolias, they are easily removed.  Fine, compound leaves, like those of jacaranda or honey locust, disintegrate into millions of tiny fragments that must be vacuumed out of the bottom.

If you want grasses and other fine-litter plants, reserve them for the downwind side of the pool, so their litter is blown away from the water.  This is important in late summer and fall when the ornamental grasses are releasing their seed to the winds.

When it blows, palm trees shed their litter far and wide.  This is augmented by the large sprays of small flowers that fall like snow flurries, and finally, the pea-sized black seeds that stain pool pavement or decking.  This is the reason that fan palms in this area are annually trimmed back significantly. It prevents flowering and removes last year’s dry fronds. If not, they all end up in the pool. If your beautiful old palm is giving you problems with litter, hire a palm trimmer to remove flower stems before they mature each year.

Also, make sure trees and shrubs do not shed problematic fruits and berries that stain pool spaces. Fruiting species also tend to attract local birds that sit and feed around the pool and surrounding patio, spoiling the water quality and pavement.

Bees and Poolside Plantings

Flowering trees and shrubs look pretty around pools, but they attract bees, which are a danger to bare feet.

Because everyone goes barefoot around the pool, and stepping on bees is a common way of getting stung, avoid planting bee flowers around pools.  This is one place they should not congregate. More aggressive Africanized bees make it even more important to create planting designs that don’t draw bees.  Therefore, save your bee-pollinator flowers for the front yard or further away from the pool area.  When you plant at the poolside, strive for plants with colorful foliage, interesting forms, or those with flowers that attract specialized pollinators, such as fly-pollinated succulent carrion flowers or moth-pollinated yuccas.

Prickly Poolside Plantings

Plant sharp, succulent plants but keep them well away from the pool decking edge. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Succulents, the most popular plants for pool areas, have one drawback, they have spines.  With common agaves, each species has a different sized tip point on the end of each leaf.  They’re so sharp they’ll hit the bone with little pressure and can do serious harm.  When agaves are already there, or you want to plant some further out, always do what desert folks do: trim the spine. Understand that the spine grows much like a dog’s toenail and comes out of a living quick.  So you can give it a manicure and cut off the sharp point so long as you don’t cut into the living part.  If the living cells are damaged they will die back to brown at the tips, permanently spoiling the agave’s natural beauty.  Remember, everyone slips and falls, so keep these and all cacti well away from the edge of pool decking.

Poolside Planters

These paloverde trees were reluctantly removed, due to aggressive roots and messy compound leaves and flowers, leaving suites of beautiful planters and less messy plantings. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

The beauty of using lots of large containers around the pool is that the plants become portable and interchangeable.  If one doesn’t work out, replace it with another.  Move them around with the seasons.  In the hot, dry desert, potted plants appreciate a good, moisture-holding mix like Black Gold Moisture Supreme Container Mix to ensure the roots remain cool and moist when placed alongside the hot glare and cool blue of a legendary sparkling poolside.

A Wind Garden in Mendocino

Over time, evergreen shrubs provide enough protection to add perennials to spaces around the heathers.

The Pacific Coast becomes a cold, damp and windy world, sandwiched between Pacific Palisades and redwood forested hills along Highway 1 in Mendocino, California.  The windswept tableland is brutal for most plants but grasses. Native Monterrey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) trees are capable of standing up to the wind, too.  Many century-old cypress windbreaks are found around coastal towns like Mendocino.  With the tree’s protection, and the right plants, a late friend of mine created a wind garden designed with spit-and-polish military attention to detail.

The Beginnings of a Wind Garden

The barn and cypress windbreak offered perfect “bones” for protecting this fabulous garden.

When the Army Colonel retired from a life of world travel, he bought part of an old coastal homestead and made a garden around its redwood barn.  From his small house he could sip whiskey and look out to the Pacific Ocean across a wide grassland dotted with volunteer cypress.  This garden would have to preserve that view, so the veteran began his odyssey of growing low, moorland heaths (Erica spp.) and heathers (Calluna spp.) in his cool coastal garden.  The high rainfall and cold, windy weather is what these UK natives are adapted to, and the maritime Pacific Coast allows cultivation of nearly all of them.

The beauty of these plants is their tiny bell-shaped blossoms that bloom through most of the summer. Changes in fall foliage colors lend a patchwork of heights and textures.  The large flat garden was threaded with bark-chip pathways.  Because moors are well drained and Mendocino is on clay soil, the Colonel created raised planting islands, using his military gabion training, then filled them with organic, acid soils.  He elevated them to no more than a foot or two – just enough to keep the plants dry.  Today there is no visible sign of these underpinnings of the plants, but now you know the secret too.

My friendship with the Colonel goes way back to the beginning of this garden.  Most of the early plants were propagated from cuttings outdoors in a slotted, sloping, south-facing cold frame.  This allowed one rare heather to be used as a propagation plant to generate many more.

Wind Garden Perimeter Plantings

The heather garden offers color and interest without blocking views.

Around the fenced perimeter of the garden, the Colonel planted native rhododendrons and dwarf conifers to create a green background for the hot-colored heather foliage.  Because the plants themselves can be so vivid, the flowers seem secondary, except that they excel as cut flowers.  And while the flowers last a short season, heather stems maintain their color, and may even grow brighter during certain times of year.

The original plan for this garden was to add many diverse plants tucked around the old homestead. It was a true collector’s garden. But now, Vinca minor threatens to take over the disintegrating farm house and remnants of the old garden’s Victorian camellias, still bloom.  Such is the power of low-growing plants to thrive within the confines or protection of large old evergreen trees.  It proves that little can thrive in this wind unless provided consistent care and protection, unless specially adapted to the harsh growing conditions.

Creating Your Own Wind Garden

At the edge of the plank walkway are exposed wood gabions stacked like Lincoln logs to hold peat-rich soils above the clay.

With high-quality Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum peat moss, anyone can copy this growing method for heaths and heathers along the West Coast.  Since few have the porous, peaty ground of the moors, raise the plants up by 6 to 12 inches with sideboards or dry rock walls, then mix the peat in with the ground soil at a 2:1 ratio for ideal soil at the root zone.

There are hundreds of species and varieties of heaths and heathers with widely differing cold hardiness requirements, but the hardiest hail from the British Isles. The Colonel believed they could grow along California’s difficult windy coast, and he proved it with his North Coast garden.  It shows that growing plants in the wind is about adaptation and a military-level awareness of site conditions.

“Start with the perimeter, protect your assets and hunker down,” he told me one day.  “It’s how we always do it in the U.S. Army during the winds of war.”

The late Col. Jim Thompson and his lovely wife Beverly.